Review: RPO's "Rhapsody in Blue"

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The only way to start a review of Thursday night's concert by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, led by guest conductor Ward Stare, is to discuss the final work on the program. Given the grey winter skies outside and the earlier program works being full of dissonances, "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin, featuring pianist Terrence Wilson, was a desperately needed burst of artistry, well-known themes, and good feelings.

Without question, we need to hear more from Wilson - and soon. He is an unsung giant at the piano. Lanky-limbed and fluid as molten silver across the 4' span of 88 keys, Wilson owned "Rhapsody in Blue." In the audience were Gershwin's ghost, and, hunched and finger tapping right next to him, the ghost of Glenn Gould.

Better still was the chemistry between Wilson and Stare. I cannot count how many concerts I have attended and reviewed where I have watched conductors and soloists with barely a sideways glance at each other. Even when technically competent, it makes the performance too safe for my taste. Wilson and Stare were in touch with each other throughout the entire performance, looking directly into each other's eyes and even turning their bodies toward each other as they beautifully synchronized their body rhythms. This level of communication bespeaks a very high level of preparation.

And this is what I would say of Stare as a young and upcoming conductor: he knows his stuff. While I was not sold on every aspect of the other works on the program, Stare appears to have both the natural talent and the raw desire to give a truly musical experience to every member of the audience. It is clear that Stare both loves and believes in the compositions he selects to perform, and in the musicians of the orchestra. Particularly in the work by Paul Hindemith, "Mathis der Maler," Stare brought out not only each section of the orchestra, but, also, each of the individual instruments. 

What I would, however, say about the program as a whole, is that it was very heavy. All of the first three works involved deep, at times disturbing, combinations of rhythms, colliding sensibilities, and note fragments. The work by Eastman School of Music Dean Douglas Lowry, "The Freedom Zephyr," for example, included a narrative, delivered by Paul Burgett. Although the word "resolution" was at least three times emphasized by the intonation of Burgett and its placement in the text before lengthy vocal pauses, the work itself did not give the emotional release to free the audience from the experience of the oppression preceding the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The one other macro comment I hope might reach Stare is to go beyond the edge of playing it safe. In the Symphony No. 1 of William Grant Still, named by the composer the "Afro-American Symphony," there are some truly exciting passages. The foundational elements were present: solid preparation, technical execution, etc. But, I found myself rooting for Stare to push the performance over the edge. If Stare listens performances by the RPO led by POPS conductor Jeff Tyzik from the recent performance of Tyzik's "Cityscapes," Stare will know that the RPO has the capacity for jaw-dropping expression in this genre. I'd like to hear Stare let the horse out of the barn.

The RPO will repeat this program on Saturday, February 9, at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. For more information visit the RPO website.

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